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Former union chief Shorten eyes Labor return to power

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Australia's opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten speaks to the media in Sydney after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull threatened on March 21, 2016, to hold early general elections in July unless the upper house agrees to pass deadlocked legislation to overhaul unions. Turnbull came to power in a ruling party coup in September calling for better management of Australia's economy, but his government does not control the Senate and has failed to push through industrial relations bills.  / AFP / William WEST

Australia’s opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten speaks to the media in Sydney after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull threatened on March 21, 2016, to hold early general elections in July unless the upper house agrees to pass deadlocked legislation to overhaul unions.<br />Turnbull came to power in a ruling party coup in September calling for better management of Australia’s economy, but his government does not control the Senate and has failed to push through industrial relations bills.<br />/ AFP / William WEST

Charismatic and articulate, Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten is an ambitious former union chief who has risen through the ranks to be one step away from becoming Australian prime minister.

The 48-year-old assumed the party leadership in October 2013 after years of infighting that saw two prime ministers, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, toppled in party coups.

Shorten played a central role in both, leaving him free to battle ex-deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese for the right to lead Labor, a contest he narrowly won.

A lawyer by training and always calculating, his mantra is fighting for middle- and working-class families with health, jobs and education his party’s key priorities.

“What motivates me? People,” he writes on his website.

“Labor represents people, middle and working class people — people who otherwise would not have their voices properly heard. People who aspire for a good education for their children, a secure job, decent health care and dignity in retirement.

“A Shorten Labor government will stand up for middle and working class families across Australia.”

His father worked at Melbourne docks and Shorten has been at pains to emphasise throughout his political ascendancy his working-class credentials.

Born and raised in Melbourne, he attended the elite Jesuit school Xavier College from a young age before graduating from Monash University in arts and law.

It was at high school and then university that he became involved in the Labor party, working as a lawyer before joining the Australian Workers’ Union in 1994 as an organiser.

He became the AWU’s Victorian state secretary and then national secretary, shooting to fame during a mine collapse in Beaconsfield in 2006 when he became the public spokesman for two miners trapped underground for two weeks.

Shorten entered parliament the following year, rising to become education minister and workplace relations minister.

But it has not all been a smooth rise to the top.

In August 2014 he was cleared by police of historical sex assault allegations. The claim concerned an alleged incident in the 1980s when he was aged 19 and was made by a woman he knew briefly at that time.

In a memoir published this week, ostensibly to define his image ahead of the election, he argues that he has now left factional sparring behind him, while stressing his days as a unionist leave him well placed to govern the country.

“Some people think strong leadership means telling people what they must do or being the smartest person in the room,” he writes of the lessons he learnt as a union heavyweight.

“That wasn’t my view as a unionist, and nor is it my view now as Labor leader.”

He added that he still thinks like a union organiser and that is the way he would govern.

“Whether it’s dealing with the rising influence of vested interests or solving community-level problems, empowering people is the key.”

Shorten cites a lifelong interest in social justice issues such as domestic violence, equal opportunity in the workplace, as well as bolstering science and medical research as driving interests.

Married to Chloe, daughter of former governor-general Quentin Bryce, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Australia, with whom he has a daughter, Shorten is step-father to his wife’s two children from a previous marriage.


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